Editor's note: This article is the first in a series looking at what a change in the presidency might mean for an array of topics that affects Utah.
SALT LAKE CITY — There's less than one month left before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, sparking questions about how his administration will handle many issues important to Utah voters, including religion.
On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump told supporters frequently that a Biden administration would pose a great threat to the religious community and Biden would not fight to protect their freedoms. But was his claim true?
"My view is that these claims that Joe Biden will somehow have a negative impact on religious freedom are entirely baseless," said Jeff Merchant, Utah Democratic Party Chair.
Derek Brown, Utah's GOP Chair, said there was no inherent reason to believe Biden will attack religious freedom once he takes office.
"Biden made the comment that he would be willing to work with religious organizations and people with religious faith," Brown said. "And so as a party, I certainly believe that he'll be true to his word and make that a priority."
Biden has previously said he will be a president for all Americans, whether they voted for him or not. "I will keep the faith that you have placed in me," he tweeted on Nov. 7.
Brown predicts that even Utahns who disagree with Biden's policies will give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to religious issues, partly because of a long-standing history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints communities, the predominant faith in the state, and Catholic communities working together — Biden is Catholic.
Brown said he expects Republicans that are Latter-day Saints in Utah, many of whom "may not agree with him on a lot of policies," will give Biden the benefit of the doubt "simply because I think as someone who is a member of an organization like the Catholic Church, I think they appreciate that those are his roots and his beliefs."
"They'll be hopeful that when there are policies that are proposed that affect religious beliefs that he'll respect those, and frankly, I think, that he will," Brown said. "I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt — he's expressed a willingness to work with religious organizations and people of faith."
Some members of Utah's federal delegation have been known for being passionate defenders of religious freedoms, namely Republican Sen. Mike Lee and U.S. Congressman Chris Stewart. Brown said he hopes Biden will consult with these lawmakers (and others) on critical issues involving religious organizations.
"I think that's my hope is that the administration that comes in, the Biden administration, will work hand in hand with members of the congressional delegation who have already been working on these issues and have struggled to find ways to balance the competing interests," Brown said. "And I am confident that they will."
While Trump doesn't adhere to a specific religion — he previously identified as a member of the U.S. Presbyterian Church but recently said he considers himself to be a non-denominational Christian — he has made religion and religious issues a staple of his administration. Some have lauded him as a defender of religious freedoms in the country, while others claim he exploits the religious for political gain while he mocks them behind closed doors.
Biden, however, identifies as a devout practicing Catholic and will soon become the second member of the faith to take office since John F. Kennedy. He regularly attends Mass and carries a rosary; he even quoted a beloved Catholic hymn in his victory speech, "On Eagle's Wings."
"For Joe, faith is both a private devotion — he prays regularly, he goes to church. But it's also public. He's open about and proud that he's a Catholic," Fr. Kevin O'Brien, a friend and spiritual adviser to Biden and his wife Jill, recently told CNN.
Merchant said Biden has had a "lifetime of showing that he is a religious man."
"He goes to church," Merchant added. "He took his kids to church, he regularly practices his religion, before it was something that was the issue that it is today, before he was running for president, before he was running for Senate, while he was in the Senate. He practices his religion. I don't see any reason to doubt his devotion to his religious practice."
Despite his faith, some of his policies go against teachings of the Catholic church, like his stance on abortion rights, and has caused controversy in the past; he was once denied Holy Communion at a South Carolina Mass.
'Muslim Ban' and its future
In late 2015, Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. in response to a shooting in San Bernardino, California. Soon after, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement, not citing Trump's decision specifically, that it was "concerned about the temporal and spiritual welfare of all of God's children across the earth, with special concern for those who are fleeing physical violence, war and religious persecution."
The church urged governments to "cooperate fully in seeking the best solutions to meet human needs and relieve suffering."
Within his first few weeks of office, Trump issued a travel ban for several countries with predominantly Muslim populations for what the administration said were national security reasons. A revised version of that original travel ban, called the "Muslim ban" by detractors, remains in effect today; however, that might change come Jan. 20, 2021.
Biden has promised Muslim advocacy groups that one of his first actions as president will be to reverse the ban.
"Religious freedom is a foundational principle of this country," Biden's campaign website reads. "Protecting the religious freedom of Muslim-Americans is vital to protecting that right for us all and ensuring that America sets a positive example for the rest of the world. As President, Joe will rescind the Trump Administration's Muslim Ban on day one and urge Congress to pass the No Ban Act to ensure future administrations cannot restore Trump's Ban."
Utah was founded by Latter-day Saints who fled religious persecution and found refuge out west, leading them to settle in the desert land. Given the history, the state has been a staunch advocate for refugees and houses a large refugee population. Gov. Gary Herbert even asked Trump to send more refugees to Utah last year.
"Here in Utah, we are very welcoming to people from all over the world and that's one of the reasons we have such a huge refugee population," Brown said. "When others may be concerned about people coming from all over the world, as a state we open our arms and we say come in. We say that this is a place where you are welcomed, and we appreciate your differences and those differences of course involve differences of religious belief."
But Brown said the ban had nothing to do with religious beliefs but was an "issue of health and national security and other issues."
"I don't think Utah and Utah Republicans will be anything other than supportive of policies as long as they don't have sort of religious overtones when it comes to things like travel bans," he said.
Politics and religion
When religious issues come into politics, people can become passionate and at times divisive; there's a reason everyone jokes about not discussing politics or religion at the Thanksgiving dinner table, Brown said.
"Both are based on an underlying set of core values and beliefs that an individual has," he said. "And a lot of those beliefs in religion, in politics and elsewhere are unprovable assumptions that we have."
Brown said despite the differences in opinion, Americans need to have "curiosity" in learning about various beliefs.
"We need to be curious, why does someone feel the way they do and really get to understand them and understand their heart and what it is that makes them tick," Brown said. "And the more that we are curious, and the more that we really understand what is in someone else's heart, I think more empathy and compassion we will have regardless of political or religious beliefs."
Merchant said he believes Trump's administration contributed to the political divide in the country and used religion as a ploy to do so; he hasn't helped the religious groups he appears to support as much as he receives credit for, he said.
"He's supported them on certain policy positions, but I think that he's actually left the Christian conservative movement, as well as religion in general, in a worse place than it was before because he's politicized it and religion shouldn't have ever been a politicized issue in this country," he said. "There are plenty of Republicans and plenty of Republican presidents who have done amazing things to protect the interests of religious organizations in the United States. I think there are Democratic presidents and leaders that have as well. But I don't necessarily think that Donald Trump has done that."
Merchant, instead, said he believes Biden will serve religious groups better than his predecessor. On Biden's campaign website he provides specific plans he has for those in the Jewish, Catholic and Muslim communities.
"He will be equally fair to people outside of his own individual denomination, and outside of traditional religion as we see it in this country," Merchant said.
Merchant encouraged Utahns to read what the president-elect has said himself about religion and look at the reverence he treats the subject.
"Look at his words. Look at his actions. And then make that decision," Merchant said. "Don't look at what Donald Trump has said. Don't look at what extreme news organizations have said; look at what Joe Biden actually has said, and then utilize those very values that we, as Utahns in particular but as all Americans have and or should have, which is when someone tells you something you initially trust them."